A quarter century ago, Severin Awori Lwali of Nairobi, Kenya, wanted to make his parents, Sebastian and Hilda, proud of him. The Lwailis had 11 children, Severin being the eighth. Severin’s older brother Paul already had paved the educational path by earlier enrolling at Missouri State University in Springfield in 1992. Paul applied to more prestigious schools such as the University of Southern California and Boston University, but settled on MSU because of its affordability. Severin followed in his footsteps four years later, wanting to make an impact that he felt he couldn’t by going to school in his native Kenya.
Lwali, called Sevo by his friends, began studying anthropology, with the intention of becoming a diplomat, perhaps an ambassador to the United Nations. He attended the university with the assistance of a soccer scholarship.
Just after high school, Lwali had become a Holy Spirit-filled Christian in Kenya, leading Bible studies, teaching youth, and actively discipling new followers of Christ. His parents — senior assistant police commissioner Sebastian and schoolteacher Hilda — figured Severin would become a pastor.
“When I got saved , my father was apprehensive about my conversion and what it meant for my faith away from the family faith, and how that affected my decision making processes,” Lwali says.
Lwali did indeed concentrate on spiritual matters once he arrived in Missouri. He immediately searched for a student outreach on campus that emphasized the Holy Spirit and discovered Chi Alpha Campus Ministries. He began attending Bible studies, joined the worship team, and before too long advanced to small group leader. He became the first international student to serve as student president of MSU Chi Alpha.
“Chi Alpha grounded me with opportunities to serve Jesus on campus,” Lwali says. “It really stretched me, but I saw how God orchestrated the future of my life.”
The group also helped Lwali overcome the loneliness he felt as a foreigner far away from home, how to acclimate to American culture, and provided the means to keep from starving as a cash-strapped student.
“Chi Alpha really became a family for me,” Lwali says.
Although he initially planned to move back to Kenya, both Chi Alpha and girlfriend Kristina Van Gilder changed his mind. Kristina, originally from Branson, Missouri, planned to become a band teacher, but switched majors after her Chi Alpha involvement. Kristina graduated from MSU with a religious studies degree, with the intent of becoming an overseas missionary.
“My parents thought I was majoring in Chi Alpha,” Kristina remembers.
At MSU, Sevo had been a star soccer player, with the team going undefeated his senior year. He became a graduate assistant at MSU, working with student athletes, which paid for his master’s in communication. Kristina, meanwhile, pursued a master’s in intercultural studies from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. The couple simultaneously led Chi Alpha international student ministry at MSU. After graduating, they wed in 2003, sealing Sevo’s decision to remain in the U.S.
The next year, they served a one-year Chi Alpha internship. Afterward, they raised funds to become full-time U.S. missionaries with Chi Alpha at MSU, focusing on international student ministry. They are both ordained Assemblies of God ministers. The number of international students more than tripled during their time at MSU, driven by increases primarily from China and India. When they started, MSU had 500 foreign students enrolled. While MSU’s undergraduate student population is overwhelmingly white at 82.3%, the full-time graduate student enrollment is a different story: 22.4% internationals.
Andy Estrella became director of the MSU Chi Alpha in 2008, a year after Lwali joined the staff. When Estrella arrived, only 15 international students participated in Chi Alpha on campus. Six years later, 100 foreign students took part. They outnumbered the American-born students in the group, which he attributes to Lwali’s leadership presence.
“Sevo implemented a vision for international students because he had been an international student,” says Estrella, who turns 42 this month. “He’s lived out the experience.”
Estrella, an AG U.S. missionary, commends Lwali for being humbly led by the Holy Spirit in every phase of ministry.
“He is a strong leader, but he does not have an abrasive personality,” Estrella says. “I’ve never seen him yell, yet he is direct and not afraid to confront in a gentle way.”
Sevo joined the national Chi Alpha staff in Springfield in 2015, working initially with Crystal M. Martin , then international director. Lwali became international director
six months later when Martin moved into the cross-cultural missions director post.
There are over 1 million foreign students studying in the U.S., most of them the cream of the academic crop. Lwali sees the evangelism potential of international students accepting Jesus as Savior on U.S. campuses, being discipled, returning home, and sharing their faith.
“God is bringing the nations to use for a strategic purpose,” Lwali says. “God didn’t bring them here just for us to be their friend. He brought them here to be His friend.”
Merely telling them about Christianity isn’t enough, according to Lwali.
“We don’t want to just befriend them, or even just save them,” Lwali says. “They are laborers in the harvest. They are disciple-makers who go home and make a difference.”
But the journey from friendship to leadership doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen in a vacuum. To aid in the training, Chi Alpha has implemented an annual All Nations Conference, designed to equip international students for a lifetime of faith in God. The training likewise encourages their relationships with Christian friends to prepare for an ultimate return to their home countries as strong Christians. Chi Alpha International also sponsors an annual seven-week Leadership Intensive Training. Although foreign students enjoy great religious freedom in the U.S., many will return to oppressive communist, Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist regimes in their homeland.
Kristina Lwali says international student ministry is one of the most strategic mission fields in the world.
“It’s a key time in their life to figure out what they believe,” Kristina says. “If they can get saved and discipled here, who is better to reach their home culture.”
Sevo has recruited six area representatives to be ambassadors to international students and he is seeking two more.
“International students must be intentionally trained so they don’t feel all alone when they return home,” Lwali says. “When they transition back, they need to go with a Kingdom mindset.”
The full-time job these days for the 42-year-old Kristina is home schooling the couple’s four children: Imani, 13; Joshua, 12; Severin II, 10; and Asali, 8.
Sevo, still a fit and muscular 46, has lived in the U.S. for more than a quarter century. He misses Kenya, but returns every other year with his wife and children to visit parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles. He also directs mission teams to Kenya. Sevo led both of his parents to salvation in the Lord. His father eventually saw the difference Jesus made in his son’s life.
“Sevo is called by God to train international students,” Kristina says. “He’s lived the journey himself, so he has an anointing for that.”